The Aerobatic Swift

Out on the red-tiled terrace off the top floor of our Collegio Internazionale, there are many miracles. In one direction, the pride of Urbino – a bell tower that can surprise with alleluias through the old brick alleyways, and behind that, the glory of the Duomo. In the other direction, nature’s plotted palette of slant fields, flowers and row trees, backed by the two mountains framing Furlo Gorge.

Another rooftop gathering, this one hosting visitors from journalism programs: Rachele Kanigel from San Francisco State U., left, talking to Deni Chamberlin; Gregory Pitts from Middle Tennesssee; Sam Fulwood III, dean of the J school at American U, and Uche Onyebadi, chair of the journalism department at Texas Christian.

But these are nothing compared to the miracle of the swifts.

They dart overhead in the bluest of skies, clearing it of invisible bugs as if to make that sky more perfect than human imagination could make it. When it’s cleared by the swifts, God brings on the pinks and reds of sunset.

I have been out on the empty terrace at dawn, pretending I know yoga but really just there to watch for the swifts. There are a lot more of them at dusk, when the ieiMedia faculty family gathers, furnishing the terrace with chairs, tables and a feast of local foods and wine.

The swifts seem to strafe and dive-bomb us like Spitfires. They are swifter than the eye, or our cameras, can follow.

I’ve read that swifts may be the fastest creatures on earth, built for speed and surprise. The Romans named them “no legs,” because they never saw them land, though we know they rest in vertical surfaces inside towers and chimneys. They are elegantly designed for speed, in points like a stellar polyhedron. The wings taper to dagger points, the small head a mere bump, the tail a tapered point until it divides like a clothes pin to make a quick turn. The quick turns outsmart – out-dart – the bugs (except those lucky enough to enter through our wide-open bedroom window). A small squadron of swifts whooshes over our heads, and we instinctively and pointlessly duck, then laugh.

I remember the end of a little poem by Robert Graves, “Flying Crooked.” It’s about the cabbage white butterfly, an obvious metaphor for those of us who feel a little like Robert Graves – fools whose “crooked flight” (through education, wilderness and life) brings us to miracles like Urbino. Compared to the amazing swifts, we’re all like that crooked-flying butterfly.

He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Urbino, from atop the Fortezza. In the background, Mt. Pietralata and Mt. Paganuccio.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lovesong of J. Alfred Somebody

I am Lazarus come from the dead to tell you all. No, that’s not what I meant at all.

Still positive from Covid today, staying positive in my room. But I’m more like those perplexed in the marketplace on the day of Pentecost. I watch TV police-dramas in which Italian is dubbed on American actors pretending to be actual Americans who murdered a lover, and I can’t really follow it. It’s not enough to know every other word. Questo I know. And something about sbaglio.

Libby, on the rooftop terrace

I look up the Italian for “wrong.” They don’t seem to have a word for wrong in the moral sense. It’s just “non” something, like niente di male (you haven’t done anything wrong). Sbaglio means a mistake. Morally wrong is non giusto, not fair, unjust.

Right and wrong, in Italian roots, are about justice. In high school I learned to recite Cicero’s famous oration on the Cataline conspiracy. O tempora, o mores. I haven’t studied Cicero since then, but I believe that he and other Italian political philosophers (Livy, Machiavelli, Scorsese, Coppola) gave justice its architecture. Justice sits on Roman columns.

For something to be right, it needs to be fair. But life isn’t fair. Is it fair that I got Covid, even as I was doing everything right? Machiavelli had an answer for that, according to a great lecture I just watched on “The Prince” by a Cambridge historian. The unfairness of life was a fact called fortuna. To the classical Romans, the randomness of good luck and bad was almost a goddess, Fortuna. Machiavelli agreed.

But fortuna wasn’t fate. It could be coaxed and opposed, to some extent, by the other great force in human affairs that Machiavelli seized on, called virtù. There’s a whole history of philosophy behind that word, including Greek ethics, Roman “manliness” and the Christian cardinal virtues. But Machiavelli gave all that a Machiavellian twist. The ethical “virtù” of a good guy would be fine if people were good, he said. But they’re not. So an individual with virtù needed the good judgment to know when to be “just,” based on a provisional trust, when to have “courage” (a virtue, but one shared with an animal, the lion) and when to be “prudent” (like a fox, even with guile and deception). But what about Christian ethics, and Cicero? Machiavelli has a thin smile that says: Don’t be stupid.

But I keep going back to fortuna. I wonder if beneath this is something that theoretical science seems to have verified – randomness. At the subatomic level, as in the cosmos, there seems to exist a pure randomness. There’s a randomness, too, in the mutations that make life evolve, and triggered our daughter’s cancers. We create a surrogate for this randomness when we shuffle cards to play a game, but pure randomness is beyond simply not knowing the physical laws and conditions of something that seems random. In my humble opinion, it’s not even in God’s control, but it’s at the heart of Creation, beyond any laws. Then there are laws governing the order of things, and that’s at the other extreme of meaninglessness – because pure order admits of no freedom. Cell division and energy exchanges, animal behavior and optics, all following a solemn order.

And that leaves us humans. . .in the middle. In the muddle. Italy seems to be the perfect place to be there, whether sick or well, among friends and the beauty of a Renaissance city. I can sneak out onto a tiled terrace for warming sun, or to watch the swifts darting through the twilight and far below, little cars winding away on a curve that passes a little road called Niccolò Machiavelli.

I recognized our interpreter from 2019 — here, in the Piazza della Repubblica, wearing the laurel wreath of a new graduate of the University of Urbino. (She didn’t recognize me, but gave a nice pose with unicorn horn and fantastic dress.)
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Room with a View

I am in an unusual prison cell, isolated in Room 54 of the Collegio Internazionale, in Urbino, because I have Covid. The Italians require seven days of isolation from the time of my “extremely positive” test results yesterday afternoon. The pharmacist gave me the document for that (got my passport back, but forgot the 3 euros change for the 12-euro test. Brain fog.). I’ll need another test, with certified negative result, after seven full days. Seven is better than 40, which is the Italian word that gave us “quarantine,” from the old practice of having crews stay on board in anchorage in the days of plagues.

What’s most unusual about this cell is its view out double windows that can be flung open. It’s a beautiful view.  The aged terracotta tiles slanting up on the building 10 feet away, across the narrow cobblestone street four floors down, is all I can see from my sickbed. But leaning out of the window, I can see a whole gorgeous world. In an instant, I fall in love with that world again. “There is no world without Verona’s walls,” Romeo says, and I see what he means. To the right, beyond more slanting roofs of fishscale tiles and TV antennae, I see the campanile bell tower and dome of the Duomo, Urbino’s cathedral. To the left, I see beyond more tile roofs the green landscape of cedar-fringed hills, terraced farmland with the yellow flowers called ginestra, and the beginning of the Apennine mountains. Looking up, the deep blue sky of an Adriatic morning. Down, the alley that is no longer boisterous with University of Urbino students yelling and singing their obscene graduation song, but at peace.

This peace floats up, like the breeze I see gently playing with the tablecloth hanging on the railing next to clothes on clotheslines. Italians know that sunlight is better than an energy-wasting dryer. The Italians will need to find more ways to reduce their dependence on Russian energy now. But it’s not politics that strikes me, looking out this window on the world. It’s sheer beauty.

In his novel “Lancelot,” not his best, Walker Percy has a character who narrates the entire book from a jail cell. The character is clearly crazy, but it’s in his sickness that he sees things more clearly. And he notices how the narrowness of his jail cell’s view of some tiny slice of New Orleans gives him the attention needed to really see. That’s what I feel looking out this window. Libby has moved to the room on the other side of one wall. She has brought me coffee.

If this is Covid for a 70-year-old man fully vaccinated with one booster, I pray for the protection needed by anyone who has not been vaccinated. I have the symptoms of a bad cold. But I know this highly contagious variant of Covid-19 (I’m sure I caught it from a 30-second conversation with three of our students at the open-night reception, one of whom tested positive two days later) can be deadly for the unvaccinated. It is wilding through the body, looking for weird ways to wreck havoc. Fortunately, I can tell, my immune system is there to stop it. And that’s why I feel rotten, but alive to this incredible window view.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Italian values

URBINO, Italy – These American undergraduates are getting their orientation from Mirko Marinelli, a director of GEV, the outfit that runs their dormitory. It’s a remarkable building — palatial, literally: a 15th century palace, the Palazzo Chiocci, which contemporary Italian designers and contractors recently spent two years reconstructing for visiting students.

Mirko Marinelli addressing ieiMedia class of ’22

The work of the designers ought to win a big award. It’s the perfect expression of the Italian respect for historical buildings (especially from the Renaissance; especially here in Urbino) and functional, energy-saving modern material living. The outside is preserved – old brick held together with iron bolts or new plaster and a four-panel double wood door. Inside, preserving the vaulted ceilings, the new floors are now close enough to bang your head if you’re not careful. Rooms in a maze are accented in smooth wood and elegant metal railings. There are recycle bins, exposed beams, and a bathroom for each bedroom, with bidet, two-level toilet flushing and a shower.

Mirko’s orientation seemed to express Italian values as well. These may seem, at first, disorienting. From the perspective of America’s politics today, they would be controversial. But they are, merely, mature. Italy went through its Fascism 80 years ago. This far from that, Italians seem freer, happier, humbler and more connected across generations than Americans today. In the post-WWII years, American school children were taught to appreciate the stability of the American two-party political system and its peaceful Presidential succession, compared to Italy’s multi-party system and its constant changing of governments. Now look. After the Jan. 6 insurrection and the party of “that’s your Reality, not mine,” Italy seems a better system.

Mirko advises:

  • Respect the cleaning lady, Francesca. She will clean your floor and your toilet once a week, but you must keep your floor clear, and clean and change your own sheets.
  • Only students registered with the police to be staying here, after turning over passports for 24 hours, may be in the building.
  • Separate your waste into recycle bins for glass, aluminum, paper, plastic and cardboard. Failing to do this is illegal.
  • If too many are using electricity or Wi-Fi at the same time, these might shut off.
  • Don’t leave the door open, or a city cat might enter. (What happened to one cat after a month stuck inside is a story that gets a sympathetic reaction from the students.) Urbino pays a city worker to feed the city cats (who keep the rat and mice population down).

These kinds of rules, like the registration on gun ownership, might seem to restrict freedom. But they are really rules for living with maximum freedom in a world of limited resources and respectful relationships. The kind of world we want, isn’t it?

Reading the history of Duke Frederico Montefeltro, on the 600th year of his birth, at the statue of Raphael (at the top of the street of the painter’s birthplace).
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My comments to USDOT re: rulemaking phase of Bipartisan Infrastructure Act

Agency: Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
Docket No. FHWA-2021-0022
Jan. 14, 2022

I am a new EV owner, and instead of merely joining the chorus of complainers about the lack of charging stations, I’m trying to help my city of Lexington, Va., take action. The planning director, Arne Glaeser, tells me that the city owns space for charging stations near the center of our small town with the electrical infrastructure needed and room for about 7 or 8 parking slots. In the past, money the city hoped to get for EV charging stations from the VW settlement was blocked by an indemnification problem. Now, the city hopes to get federal dollars from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.

I left our Nissan Leaf in this position, hooked up through our basement, for a couple of hours. The result: zero additional electrical charge. The instruction manual explained: the wiring in some old houses won’t work for EVs.

But how long will this take? Please move with dispatch to get this money moving down to the local level. The epic project of decarbonizing our economy and lifestyle, surely, requires as much hurry as the bipartisan billions that Congress sent out to everybody during the pandemic.

I drove our new Nissan Leaf from Georgia (where I bought it) to Lexington in October. I used four charging stations (each location benefiting from my hanging around and spending money, something Lexington could use as a well-located charming tourist town). But once I got home, I discovered that the house I rent has wiring too old to charge the Leaf. I searched for days for a charging station. Two local hotels restrict theirs to guests. A half dozen Tesla charging stations are not compatible (and Tesla’s promise to make an adapter remains unfulfilled). Eventually, I found a Level 2 (220 AC) charging station at a Walmart in an adjacent county — wasting the time and money that EVs should be saving an owner.

I drove the car back to Atlanta and left it there with my brother-in-law in exchange for his non-plug-in hybrid Prius.

I wrote my congressman, Ben Cline, about this problem, but he merely sent back a form letter about his “all of the above” energy policy that ignored the problem I described.

Charging stations, where we live, need to come online rapidly. The money is there. The popular will and demand is there. Let this not take the rest of the year. Thank you.

The only available charger on W&L campus (and anywhere in Rockbridge County that I could find). It’s a slow AC Level 1 charger that requires this perilous balancing of my converter unit, and is unavailable during the week because the two nearby slots are reserved “For EVs and hybrids,” which means non-plug-in hybrids take up the parking spaces.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Searching for the Origins of the Appalachian Trail

The little trail we are hiking in the North Georgia woods belongs to us and the bears. The hardwoods overhead are as diverse as any in the Eastern United States. The ferns, galax, poison ivy and other native groundcover have almost closed in at our feet.

Split Rock Trail, Tate Mountain

My trail buddy, Colin Calvert, is a cousin, fresh out of Georgia State College with a degree in environmental science and experience with Geographic Information System maps. He is reading the woods for clues of the original Appalachian Trail. It’s impossible to find, because it moved from here 63 years ago to the current southern terminus of Springer Mountain, about 12 miles northeast as the crow flies.

I have two topographic maps in hand, both of them having the same underlay of the U.S. Geological Survey map of this area. Their elevation lines are whorled like a fingerprint – in this case, matching fingerprints. We’re on the maps’ 3,000-foot elevation line, walking up to the next line 20 feet higher.

One map is overlaid with the trails of a private summer vacation-home community. My cousin and I are fourth and fifth generation inheritors of this Brigadoon. It began as an upscale vacation development in 1930, the same year the original Appalachian Trail was first blazed through its woods and Stiles & Van Kleek golf course. The trail we’re on we call Split-Rock Trail; on the map it’s a loop drawn with a dotted line. Maybe the AT went through the split rocks, but we can’t be sure.

The other map is overlaid with the original Appalachian Trail that tracks the crazy pattern of lost pieces of the trail, including the first southern terminus, which holds vivid memories for me. In my childhood summers, this enchanting place in the mountains of Pickens County, near Jasper, was a whippoorwill and timber rattlesnake haunt that seemed most wild on the ridge that was the Appalachian Trail. 

Those childhood memories, combined with the discovery of a road called Old Appalachian Trail near my son’s house in Virginia and the knowledge that 2021 was the trail centennial, sparked my curiosity, setting me on a quest to find the original pieces of a great American creation.


The year was 1921. Military veterans had returned from war to American cities they didn’t recognize. More than a half-million Americans had died in a worldwide pandemic. Two summers earlier, many cities, north and south, had been rocked by race riots. That was the climate of the nation when the idea for the trail was born.

In an essay headlined “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” published 100 years ago this month in The Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Benton MacKaye first proposed creating the trail.

One of Harvard’s first graduate students in forestry, MacKaye devoted himself to influencing the shape of what he called “the Wild East” through his singular idea of regional planning. His article proposing an Appalachian Trail was both practical and poetic, both socialist and American, the small start of a big idea he called “a retreat from profit” – a kind of sabbath break from America’s frenzied urbanization and mechanization.

The only unbroken wilderness within a day’s drive of America’s industrial East, he wrote, was the great stretch of Appalachian ranges. “The skyline along the top of the main divides and ridges of the Appalachians would overlook a mighty part of the nation’s activities,” according to MacKaye. “The rugged land of this skyline would form a camping base strategic in the country’s work and play.” MacKaye’s proposal was to link this skyline together from Northeast to Southwest, along America’s original colonies.

MacKaye’s vision was joined by two men, a Connecticut judge named Arthur Perkins and Myron Avery, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a tireless organizer who headed up the Appalachian Trail Conference for two decades. He shared MacKaye’s idea of volunteer teams blazing and maintaining the trail, but Avery emphasized distance hiking over MacKaye’s idea of educational camps and shared farms. They quarreled and MacKaye shifted his interest, co-founding The Wilderness Society in 1935. From then until Avery’s death in 1952, MacKaye had little to do with the ever-evolving Appalachian Trail.

It’s hard to say exactly when the Appalachian Trail was born. After MacKaye’s article was published, 10 years passed before efforts were made to begin linking the existing trails. Long after the linkage was completed in 1937, many of the early routes were moved for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive.

Fancy Gap, Virginia

It was another 31 years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Trails System Act on Oct. 2, 1968. The act renamed it the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and gave ownership of the pathway to the National Park Service, although its maintenance continued to be shared with volunteer teams like those under the Conservancy today. From the 1920s until 2005, these volunteers called their organization the Appalachian Trail Conference.

If there’s no agreed-upon birthday for the trail, Benton MacKaye’s article clearly marked its conception. And that’s why the Appalachian Trail Conserancy is celebrating the centennial with a three-year strategic plan aimed at honoring the vision of that essay.


The original southern point of the Appalachian Trail was Mt. Oglethorpe, in Pickens County. When early hikers followed the dirt Monument Road some 10 miles north from the marble obelisk that honored Georgia’s founder, they came to the development around my family’s house, which included a rustic lodge, long since burned down, and a sparkling lake 2,700-feet above sea level.

I often wondered about those early hikers passing through this private property. Were they shot at by moonshiners? Our summer neighbor, the writer Harold Martin, who had a cabin close to the old trail, said his kitchen sink – which was fed by a wooden barrel reservoir near the trail – often spewed coffee grounds and bits of scrambled eggs from hikers using that barrel for dish washing.

In 1958, apparently to avoid such public-private tensions, the trail’s southern terminus moved to Springer Mountain. (Later, the Benton MacKaye Trail was also blazed from Springer Mountain, meandering 288 breathtaking miles through Tennessee and North Carolina to rejoin the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky s National Park.)

A few years ago, I discovered another remnant of Benton MacKaye’s earlier pathway. Near my son’s farm on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Fancy Gap, Virginia, there’s a gravel service road named Old Appalachian Trail. When snow closes the parkway, it’s the only access to US 52 into Mt. Airy, North Carolina. I was curious: How could the trail have moved more than 100 miles to the west?

Marty Dominy, who lives on a farm with his 94-year-old mother near Toomsboro in middle Georgia, has been diligently seeking answers to such questions for more than 30 years. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy put me in touch with Dominy, and he supplied me with his topographic maps and micro-histories of the original trail. The color-coded lines he had drawn and the details he gleaned from tattered old guidebooks seemed to spring from an eccentric obsession. The Appalachian Trial has that effect on many people.

Dominy’s obsession originated with a 1985 article in a Conservancy newsletter seeking volunteers to help gather old guidebooks and conduct oral histories on the original trail. Dominy responded and was informed that the article had elicited “virtually no response” to the article. So Dominy, in effect, took on the entire challenge himself.

“I sort of tried to formalize it by putting together an outline of what it should look like,” Dominy said.

Dominy has developed an orderly system of documentation that combines a topographic map and a narrative on sections of abandoned pathways that span 10 to 20 miles long. Dominy has created more than 100 maps and written more than 1,000 digital pages of narrative, tracking various locations of the trail as it shed earlier versions like so many snake skins.

Aficionados may disagree about how much of today’s trail is original (as they disagree about the current length), but Dominy’s calculation is surely the most authoritative: Original trail segments constitute somewhere between 25% and 30% of the existing trail, he said.


On a bright, windy Saturday, my wife, Libby, and I headed up the Blue Ridge Parkway from Fancy Gap, Virginia, in search of the original Appalachian Trail around the Pinnacles of Dan. Dominy’s topographic map had a few stretches of a 1931 footpath marked in blue between the Parkway and the upper Dan River. We followed one of these, driving along state route 638 to Bell Spur Cemetery and soon merging with Squirrel Spur Road before veering north into a field of private property.

The blue lines of the oldest trail look like the track of a lost child, splitting into two to zigzag along crests and down to the river. A 1934-39 alternative, in red, leaves the split and heads south for a shortcut to where the blue trail wanders on.

We returned to the Parkway to look for the path further north and east. Back on the original 1931 path, Va. 610 took us to a high meadow that beckoned. It was the first place we found without a sign or fence to stop us from parking and hiking in. We tromped with our two dogs down a lovely slope of unkempt grasses and wildflowers, strawberries and goldenrod. By the spring woods, we spread a cover and had our picnic. It was a magical stolen moment on an Appalachian Trail long gone. We saw no one.

A recent email sent by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy soliciting donations states that, “While the A.T. became a continuous footpath from Georgia to Maine in 1937, the years that followed highlighted how fragile the trail’s existence truly was. The economy rapidly expanded after World War II, and the resulting urban sprawl and development led to significant trail relocations — some measuring 75 to 150 miles in length — in order to maintain the integrity of the A.T. experience.”

My wife and I didn’t see urban sprawl. But we did see private property and “No Trespassing” signs. Back in the late ‘30s, there was a three-way skirmish between the mountaineer property owners, the builders of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail Conference that forced the relocation of the trail in remote areas like this. Very few sections of the original trail are on today’s parkway, but the idea was to keep the trail from being even within eyesight of it.

On another hike, we left I-81 north and took state route 56 through the deserted-looking railroad village of Vesuvius. (Long gone is the fire-belching factory that gave it the name of the classical Italian volcano.) Through a lifting fog, with bars of morning sunlight changing angles with the road’s steep winding climb, we drew breath in awe realizing we were entering the Blue Ridge Mountains at the perfect peak of fall. The road runs under one of those beautiful parkway bridges, its stones laid by crews of New Deal agencies like the CCC and WPA. On the east down slant, about a half mile on, we stopped at a large gated field with a pond, our guess for where the ancient trail went west toward the parkway.

Dominy’s map had a blue trail line that seemed to begin here, somewhere between Montebello and Tye River Gap on Crabtree Falls Highway. We drove further south, turning right on Va. 603 and right again on Va. 813. This ended at the parkway, milepost 29, near a shipshape National Park Service facility for easy parking.

We began hiking north, parallel to the parkway, until the trail curved left to what seemed to be our goal: Whetstone Ridge. It’s an 11.3-mile trail that was the original trail for 4.5 miles. At that point, the old trail turned left along Big Branch, then south along Irish Creek, then back to what later became the parkway. We weren’t prepared to do that full loop; it would have meant ending the hike 11 miles from our car, but we were delighted to have discovered Whetstone Ridge Trail.

The trail had a few stone steps we imagined had been set for the original trail. To the east, from the rocky ridge, we could see eastern ranges of the Blue Ridge. To the west, Wilkie Ridge.

Bright red leaves of sourwood decorated a trail of fallen gold and brown leaves. Mountain laurel, hemlock and white pine gave green to all the bright sun-struck gold around us. The quiet was sacred, with only an occasional laugh from a woodpecker.

We had finally arrived at MacKaye’s elusive wilderness.


It goes without saying, the original Appalachian Trail is hard to find. Its memory is paved over by secondary state roads or lost in meadows posted as private property. The pursuit of happiness in America is tightly bound to the right to private property. Benton MacKaye was seeking to renew a relationship between human-scale community and nature’s wilderness outside of private property and the profit motive.

He saw an unbroken ridgeway from Maine to Georgia as a chance for ordinary, hard-working Easterners “to catch a breath, to study the dynamic forces of nature and the possibilities of shifting to them the burdens now carried on the backs of men.”

The meaning of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail today – especially to thru-hikers and “Fastest-Known-Time” runners – has evolved from MacKaye’s original vision of rustic, free camp communities in the mountains. But it is no less spiritual and powerful.


This ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Living & Arts section, Oct. 11, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Louellen Wright Murray, 1951-2021

This tradition of eulogies at Tate Annual Meetings has a certain shape. But no passing of those we love can really fit a pattern. The passing of my cousin Louellen Murray is especially hard and uncontainable. It comes way too soon. We are devastated.

I am humbled that Tim has allowed me to read the beautiful words he has written. Before I do that, I want to say a few personal words.

Louellen was more than just a first cousin to me. She occupied a special generational space that I shared – we’re both second children of the two elder Wright children, Whittier and Emily. Both of us were born in 1951, both graduated from Atlanta high schools in 1969. We’re both lovers of poetry, of irony, of family history and beautiful things in an imperfect world. We have both been accused of getting off easy from whatever difficulties our siblings had with our parents – the “golden” ones. And now, shockingly, she is gone, and I am here, remembering her a lot as I turn 70.

The times I spent in conversation with her were all too few, but I remember them vividly – at Tate as children, as teenagers when she had a horse at Tate named Prufrock, as hippies, us talking in the little ruined cottage behind their house on 17th Street in Ansley Park, or on a lovely walk the two of us took around the Murray paradise in Lake Forest, Illinois, called Shadow Pond, and around its surrounding marshes. She seemed like the Whittier and the Wright inside of me – the quiet observer and writer – New England classy, East Tennessee tough. In me, this is jumbled up with the noisy and nosy Cumming thing. With Louellen, that Whittier and Wright style, along with her mother Sena’s quiet genius, was in its purest, beautiful quintessence.

I’ll read a few passages she wrote, to show what I mean.

Reading her book about the 12-acre estate in Lake Forest that she and Tim rescued from long neglect – she called it a “Renaissance” – is like dipping into articles in the New Yorker magazine from the 1950s. Sassy but understated, fact-checked and fascinating.

“I’m not sure when the old oak died,” she begins her book on Shadow Pond. “It wasn’t our fault. But unless something gets killed on the first page of a book, Tim Murray will not read any further. So impetus is born. The dead tree, its massively useless limbs overhanging the driveway, had to be cut down. The trunk was rendered into lengths ten feet long and four feet thick. I could imagine thick slices of the trunk being used as tables or benches, or at the very least, filleted into steppers and places throughout the woods to create paths. But professional foresters are not known for their fine tuning abilities. The trunk sections were hauled off. The limbs were fed to the chipper. All that remained was a pile of dusty wood chips which eventually scattered in the wind.”

And this, from her memories of the Tate “Sanctuary” that Whittier expanded from a garage behind the original Wright house that our great grandmother built (which burned down in 1970). The back house was originally for Whittier and Bill Emerson to hold their outrageous bull sessions before a blazing fire.

“We moved into the Sanctuary in the late 1950s. Papa and Mama slept on a foldout sofa bed in front of the fire. We ‘pigmies’ shared the brown bedroom with whatever insects still clung to us after a day in the woods.

“In the mid-1960s, a two-story wing of bedrooms was added with windows on three sides. Our room was on the ground floor, paved in flagstone, and the walls were unstained pine paneling. The dark whorls in the wood grain looked like faces, mostly owls, and became as familiar as old friends.

“Papa and Mama took the bedroom above us. The staircase, which was wood, reverberated with every step they took and with every toe on every paw of every dog that scratched a flea up there. They had a rug on the floor, but it was impossible to climb the stairs without being heard below.”

Now I’d like to read from what Tim wrote and sent me:

Louellen and I first met 45 years ago.  She was living at home after college and I was living as a bachelor working at the Trust Company Bank in Atlanta.  By divine luck, we were introduced to each other during coinciding sporting weekends at Hilton Head Island.  I was there with my bank friends to play golf, and Louellen was there with friends to play tennis.  The two groups had overlapping connections from Atlanta and socialized together in the afternoons and evenings.   Although I didn’t get to spend all that much time with Louellen during that trip, I was smitten by her beauty and charm and by the fact that she was the first girl that I had met who could throw a Frisbee!

After returning from Hilton Head, I talked my banker friend Frank into committing what was probably a crime – to research the Trust Company bank records to find out Louellen’s phone number (given that her father was a bank customer).  I called her up, we dated for two months and then I went back to business school in Chicago.  We had a long distance romance for a year (keeping Delta Airlines and AT&T in business) and were married at St Philip’s Church in Atlanta on June 19, 1976 – 45 years ago.

To capture Louellen’s essence in a few words is pretty impossible.  She was a like a priceless work of art – multifaceted, multidimensional – not perfect – but extraordinarily complex and beautiful.  I would like to share just some of the attributes that help to describe her:

  • She thrived on projects.  No matter what the task or topic, she put her heart and soul into her interests.  Always wanted to “just do it”, not just think about it.  She definitely had a bit of “never in error, but never in doubt” — didn’t respond well to authority — and probably bent a few rules over time in pursuit of her passions.  But…

She created, loved and nurtured beautiful things.  First on her list were of course our three children, Patrick, Philip and Eleanor.  And more recently includes our two daughters-in-law, Anna and Ronnie, and our three granddaughters, Coral, Iris and Sylvie.

  • She loved animals and cherished the various dogs that we had over time in our family.
  • She created masterpieces of the various apartments and houses that we shared together over time.  Her gardens received broad acclaim.
  • She was a great athlete, competing on numerous tennis and platform tennis teams over time.  Rather than sitting down after a full day of activity, our regular cocktail hour included spirited games of ping pong.  (I will not divulge who won more often!)
  • She was a Master Gardener (as certified by the Garden Club of America), a National Garden Show judge, a member of the National Society of Colonial Dames, a member of the Women’s Board of the Chicago Botanic Garden, a member of the Kenilworth and Lake Forest, Illinois garden clubs and a dedicated volunteer tending to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s renown bonsai tree collection.
  • She had numerous friends and acquaintances but didn’t “suffer fools lightly” and could have a pretty sharp wit.  The stacks of get well and condolences cards and letters that we have received are testimony to the breadth of her impact on so many people.
  • She loved Tate and tried to contribute, long distance, to Tate-related issues, including discussions and committees.  She and our children participated in a number of Joe Cumming’s Annual Meeting plays.  She thrived on the Tate environment.
  • She loved writing.  Among her essays and other written works, she produced a major rewrite of her father’s book – “TATE:  The First Sixty Years”.  Show.  I have about a dozen copies of the book at our house which I am happy to share.

In summary, I would like to thank my children for their support and comfort during Louellen’s final days. 

Louellen was my wife, my soulmate, and my best friend.  I miss her desperately.  Thank you for keeping her in your thoughts and prayers.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What’s a Southern Gentleman Today?

Washington and Lee’s former SAE House, a lofty white plantation-style mansion on E. Washington Street in Lexington, Va., has stood nearly empty for seven years now. That’s because the chapter was suspended by the national fraternity and by the university after a fatal drunken driving accident in late 2013. The chapter, founded in 1867, has remained “inactive” since the suspensions.

Former SAE house, W&L

The behavior of the driver in the car accident seemed emblematic of the privileged decadence of Greek culture that has come under scrutiny at W&L. Nicholas Perry Hansel, from a wealthy New Orleans family, was driving 10 other W&L students home from a party where his Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers rented a house in the country. He was drunk and so were most of the others piled into the SUV without seatbelts. The car left the road, struck a tree stump and overturned. One female student from Connecticut was killed, and two others seriously injured. One of the injured was in a class I was teaching then.

Nick, the driver, was somehow able, for a while, to get a judge to seal the agreement reached between his lawyers and the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Later, when he was serving a three-year sentence for manslaughter, he was able to get special privileges to come and go from the county jail, where he was somehow allowed to stay instead of in a state penitentiary. As it turned out, the jailer had received political donations of a few thousand dollars and gifts from Nick’s parents and friends. That was just part of the corruption that recently resulted in the jailer being sentenced to more than four years in prison.

I don’t know if SAE is any worse than other fraternities when it comes to bad behavior. I’ve heard that female students at the University of the South at Sewanee say SAE stands for “sexual assault expected.”

Can it be that my father, as I learned just before he died recently at 94, was an SAE at Sewanee? He was not anybody’s idea of a frat boy. He was a poet, a national journalist, a teacher with boyish excitement for what he taught, a jazzman, and someone who seemed instinctively kind, even courtly, to anyone he was with, any race, any age, any caste. Like the novelist Walker Percy, an SAE at Chapel Hill and author of “The Last Gentleman,” my father was a really, really true gentleman.

His death has brought to me a musing curiosity about that kindness, that courtliness. I want to know how much of it came from his father, or his father’s father, or that gentleman’s father, “The Major” or that man’s father, Henry. They were all gentlemen in some old Deep South sense that I associate with vellum-bound books in their private libraries on “well-born” Romans, like those from Plutarch’s Lives.

A few years ago at W&L, some alumni spoke at the ribbon-cutting of a neo-gothic mansion that an anonymous giver had restored and donated to the university. The men reminisced about when they were students in the 1960s and invited to have Sunday tea with a legendary dean who lived there. One of these alumni was an SAE, and he recalled with some irony how being an SAE meant memorizing a sort of mission statement called “The True Gentleman.”

I just looked up that statement online. The True Gentleman “does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements.” He “speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy” and his “deed follows his word.”

Some of the phrases, in the rhetoric taught in Southern universities in the 1890s, seemed to espouse values held by the line of gentlemen that produced my father’s kindness and decency. None of them were in business or sales. Before my father, they all were attorneys, officers of the court, “Esquires,” serving on boards for civic progress and in the Democratic Party of Augusta, Georgia. My father’s father would recite eccentric aphorisms of a privileged lifestyle around those values. “A gentleman does not count his change,” and “A gentleman should die in debt to his tailor.” He wore silk ascots at home, smoked a pipe, and walked on an artificial leg hidden in his well-tailored, ironed and cuffed trousers.

The True Gentleman is one who has “an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies.” It helps to have enough money, unmentioned of course, for a fine but not ostentatious wardrobe, and a loyal servant. The True Gentleman “appears well in any company.”

I couldn’t name it, but there was something rotten in the statement. It wasn’t so much the “acute sense of propriety” or the secret wealth needed to keep up appearances. It was, rather, an acceptance of hierarchy that repulsed me. In a previous world of rigid hierarchy, I suppose it was better, more “gentlemanly,” to act humble and stay silent about one’s higher position than to flaunt it. But silence is no virtue when it is at peace with this kind of ranking: the True Gentleman “does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity.”

Who wrote this? A little more online research revealed that it was a Bridgewater College graduate of 1899 named John Walter Wayland, who went on to get a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and teach history at a variety of Southern universities. But he didn’t write it for SAE. Rather, it was the winning essay in a contest in 1899, appeared in the Baltimore Sun, then fell into obscurity.

It was later discovered by a truly odious political figure from Alabama, Walter Burgwyn Jones. Jones, described in an SAE website as a former “Eminent Supreme Archon” of the fraternity, discovered “The True Gentleman” somewhere, printed it in the Baptist newsletter he edited, and sent it on to the SAE leadership. It became something every SAE had to memorize, a kind of hazing of new members.

I remember that name, Judge Walter B. Jones. He was the Alabama judge who tried to force the state’s NAACP to reveal its membership in 1956 (knowing that every disclosed member would lose his or her job as a result, if not suffer violence). And in a libel suit designed to keep the New York Times from covering the Civil Rights movement, Judge Jones steered the case into his own courtroom by finding the Times did business in Alabama because it hired an Alabama lawyer to defend itself. The Times was doomed to lose in Jones’s courtroom. I was interested to find this same Judge Jones who was involved in these two famous cases was also behind reviving “The True Gentleman.” Both cases were unanimously overturned by two of the most historic decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court – one assuring the privacy of membership in a protest organization under “freedom of assembly” and the other protecting the press from libel suits by public officials in the absence of malice. Judge Jones was a flamboyant white supremacist and nostalgic for the Confederacy.

For me, knowing the connection with Judge Jones has exposed what “The True Gentleman” was really about, once the old hierarchy began to crumble.

What is left of the inheritance my father gave to me and my brothers and sister for being decent and “gentle” human beings? I treasure it, whatever it is. It makes me weep in love to read now the legalese my father signed in his Will more than 20 years ago, appointing me “as successor Executor or Trustee” in hope for “an amicable division of said property.” I recently watched a video of a 1984 lecture he gave on journalism and poetry, and felt weepy again when he spoke of me – as if to me from beyond his mortality – as having “wings of his own.” I have a legacy, and it doesn’t require memorizing a fraternity saying.

Originally published in “Like the Dew.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bearing witness in Minneapolis

“It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”

    –Darnella Frazier, who at age 17 made the video of Officer Derek Chauvin choking George Floyd to death in a nine-minute vice between the officer’s knee and a sidewalk in Minneapolis.

Ms. Frazier, as a witness in the Chauvin murder trial, was describing what journalists sometimes experience as a moral hazard of their work. Reporters and photojournalists may be present when terrible things are happening. How far do they go to maintain their detachment so that they can do their jobs, to bear witness? At what point do they try to intervene, to help, or simply protect themselves from the physical or emotional trauma that radiates from violent news?

Flip Schulke, a photographer with Life magazine, faced that dilemma in 1965 when he was shooting pictures of the voting-rights protests in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. This was before the infamous bridge-crossing of “Bloody Sunday” that the whole world saw on TV. He watched as Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse of deputized bullies shoved children to the ground. He let his camera go and put himself between the white men and the young black protestors. This is reported in The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

Schulke remembered what Martin Luther King Jr. told him later, hearing about this. King said Schulke should have continued taking pictures. It was his duty. “The world doesn’t know this happened, because you didn’t photograph it,” the photographer recalled King telling him. “I’m not being cold-blooded about it,” King reportedly said, “but it is so important for you to take a picture of us getting beaten up than for you to be another person joining the fray.”

Now, just about everybody has a video camera on their cellphones and police officers have body cams. The Black experience of bad confrontations with police can now be seen, as it was on the internet around the world before sundown of May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis. That changed the world, thanks in large part to Darnella Frazier, whose sworn testimony helped convict Officer Chauvin of all three charges against him yesterday.

But besides the justice system finally seeming to work in such a case, the daily press also did its job, its duty. Even before the video had gone viral, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s police reporter, Libor Jany, was peeling back layers of facts. While his newsroom was mobilizing, he was tweeting his reporting. He filed his first story for the newspaper’s webpage at 3:30 a.m. the next day, a story that would be updated 115 times online before a full package of stories appeared in the newspaper on May 27.

That edition of the Star-Tribune offered clear and panoramic coverage of the incident, its social-media dimension, the emotional and historical background of other unjustified police killings, next-day fiery protests and police confrontations. All of this was done with reporters threated by a pandemic and manhandled by police in riot gear. Given the scant information available in the beginning, and the legal and political attention paid to this outbreak of news over the next year, it is remarkable how thorough and factually solid that initial coverage still stands from the first 36 hours. This was deadline reporting at its best. Let’s remember the role of the press too.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Still We Rise

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I rise.

Maya Angelou’s well-known poem, “Still I Rise,” is a swaggering song of pride and joy in the face of a past rooted in pain, “the nights of terror and fear.” Like the hymn by James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice,” which is called “The Black National Anthem,” Angelou’s poem declares a strength and triumph in being a black woman yet fully aware of history’s violent degradation, the legacy of generational trauma. The line that Johnson’s brother set to music in 1899, “We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,” recalls nothing so much as Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s report on the hundreds of black Union soldiers who had surrendered at Fort Pillow, Tenn., when this former slave-trader ordered them all slaughtered. The Mississippi River ran red with their blood, wrote Forrest (later founder of the KKK), daring the North to use black soldiers again.

An earlier poem that Angelou may have drawn on for the phrase “still I rise” comes from the white Quaker abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. The theme in this poem is different. It’s that the chains thrown off by Emancipation freed both black and white from a curse. During Reconstruction, young black students in a classroom in the early days of Atlanta University represented to Whittier the transformation of enslaved Man into the image of God.

Behold!—the dumb lips speaking

The blind eyes seeing!

Bones of the Prophet’s vision

Warmed into being!

The poem is called “Howard at Atlanta,” and there’s an interesting story behind it. The story is that General Oliver Otis Howard, head of the Freedman’s Bureau, was in that classroom at Atlanta University questioning the students. Howard had fought for the Union in many of the major battles of the Civil War, including the Battle of Atlanta, and had lost his right arm at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. He asked the students what he should tell the youth up north about the freed slaves in the South. A young lad named Richard R. Wright, who had been freed at age 10, stood up and said to Howard, “Tell them, we’re rising.” This same Richard Wright later started a newspaper in his native Cuthbert, Ga., and moved that publication to Augusta. In 1880, he founded the first public high school for blacks in Augusta, Ware High School. This was the school that was later shut down by the white Richmond County Board of Education, leading to the lawsuit Cumming v. Board of Education of Richmond County, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1899 by ruling, 9-0, that the county had no obligation to provide secondary education for blacks. (The plaintiff “Cumming” was black, but it’s also the name of my ancestors, a prominent family in Augusta in the 19th century.) Wright, discouraged in his career as educator in Augusta, moved to Savannah to become president of Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youths (today, Savannah State University), which he served for 30 years.

Whittier, inspired by the scene of young Richard Wright addressing Gen. Howard, writes:

O black boy of Atlanta!

But half was spoken:

The slave’s chain and the master’s

Alike are broken.

The one curse of the races

Held both in tether:

They are rising,–all are rising,

The black and white together!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment